Thursday, November 4, 2010

November 4, 2001: The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty

PHOENIX - It was over. Not officially yet, but for all intents and purposes, it was over.

The New York Yankees, winners of three straight World Series, had a 2-1 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. Mariano Rivera, who was probably more responsible for those three championships than any player on the team, was on the mound. He was only the most feared and successful reliever in postseason history. Coming back against him was a hopeless proposition.

So it was over. All the heroics of the Diamondbacks pitchers would be for naught. Curt Schilling had pitched a masterpiece, his third great game of the series, but that pitch he hung to Alfonso Soriano in the eighth was going to end up deciding things. Even Randy Johnson's dramatic relief appearance, coming the day after he went seven innings in a game 6 win, wasn't going to be enough. Arizona needed a run, and they had to get through Rivera to do it. The fat lady got warmed up by the pool out in right field.

But there went Mark Grace's single. That was nice. After all the years of toiling for the Cubs, having great seasons on not-so-great teams, he finally ended up in a World Series this year, near the end of his career. Good for him to be able to get that clutch hit, in the at bat he was waiting for his whole life. Too bad it won't mean anything - if you get a hit off Rivera, it just makes him angry.

There was the bunt. No surprise there. What was surprising was River panicking, rushing, and throwing the ball into center field. That was really unlike the Yankees, and Rivera in particular. And what was he doing throwing it to second, anyway? Arizona was giving them an out - a precious out, considering there were only three outs left in their season. Take the out!

Arizona gave them the out again with another bunt. Rivera again threw to the lead base instead of getting the easy out at first, but this time it worked. That was extra painful for Arizona. They certainly couldn't afford any unproductive outs at this point. One down now. A double-play ball gives the Yankees the championship.

Tony Womack was up next, Arizona's speedy leadoff hitter. He would definitely be a tough one to double up, probably the toughest player on either team to get to ground into a double play. But, he had only batted about .230 in the series up to that point, so Rivera could pitch to him without too much fear. A quick 2-0 advantage for Womack turned into a 2-2 count. Down to the last strike. You never wanted to be down to two strikes with Rivera.


It's stunning how quickly some things can change, how swiftly the perceptions you have about a team can be shattered. From the start of the 1998 season up until that point, the Yankees seemed invincible. Even with the World Series-winning run sitting on first base, it seemed completely implausible that Arizona would win. Even the most imaginative of baseball fans would have had trouble wrapping their minds around the idea that Mariano Rivera could blow a save in a game 7. With two strikes on Womack, things seemed hopeless. Rivera was going to throw that cutter, and Womack was going to either swing through it or break his bat while hitting it, leading to the season-ending double play. Four straight championships in the books.


Except Womack didn't miss the cutter. He didn't break his bat, either. Instead, he laced it down the right field line, the first truly hard-hit ball of the inning. The tying run came around to score, the series-winning run stopped at third, and Womack ended up at second, clapping his hands, then pointing to the sky. And who can blame him? He had just gotten the most shocking World Series double in years, maybe decades. Arizona had scored on the great Rivera.

Now the stadium was rocking. Where the pitch before it seemed like it was only a matter of time before the Yankees were dancing on the field, it now seemed inevitable that the Diamondbacks were going to win. The Yankees dynasty, their aura of invincibility, was shattered on one pitch. There was no way Arizona was losing now.

The Yankees still had a slim chance. They could get weak-hitting Craig Counsell out, then walk Luis Gonzalez, who was easily Arizona's best hitter, and take their chances with Matt Williams with two outs. That plan was quickly ruined, though, when Rivera's second pitch hit Counsell in the back. There was no walking Gonzalez now.

New York played the infield in to try to cut off the run at home plate. A controversial decision, as it made turning a double play that much more difficult. Plus, many a player had taken a full swing a Rivera's cutter, watched as his bat shattered on impact, and the ball floated harmlessly into the hands of a waiting infielder. With the infield in, a broken-bat hit would win it.

Gonzalez, he of the 50 home run season in 2001, did something he had never done before in his life, even back in little league: he choked up on his bat. On the 0-1 pitch, Rivera threw the cutter. Gonzalez broke his bat. The ball blooped into left field, over the head of Derek Jeter, who would have been in perfect position to catch it if he hadn't been drawn in. Playing where he was, though, he was helpless. The winning run came in. The Diamondbacks went ballistic. They had won their city's first championship.

Mariano Rivera walked off the mound with his head down. For the first and still only time in his career, he was the losing pitcher in a playoff game. The great Rivera had been beaten. And the Yankee dynasty was over.

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